Brian Ashton: Intimidating but inspirational, it's the perfect place to start

Tackling the Issues: Can Wales find a way to play unpredictably, like their celebrated teams of yesteryear, or will we see more of the round-the-corner, lateral stuff?

Most of us could do without the barmy scheduling – what use is a Friday night kick-off to anyone, apart from the broadcasters? – but it's impossible not to be captivated by the start of another Six Nations jamboree, especially when the opening match sees Wales entertaining (for want of a better word) their old enemy England at the Millennium Stadium, which to my mind is the best venue in world rugby: intimidating, hostile, exciting and inspirational. The place is uniquely atmospheric, a great sporting theatre smack bang in the middle of a great sporting city.

It produces the kind of environment that should give a real boost to Welsh ambitions, but home advantage has not been too helpful to the Red Dragons recently. They are in a trough of bad results and, while this game will unite the nation behind Warren Gatland's team, there must be many on that side of the bridge who fear another defeat and are already unnerved by their contemplation of the unthinkable.

Despite Warren's usual pre-match mutterings, I wonder whether he's convinced that his players have the belief to do the necessary when the going gets tough. This fixture, of all fixtures, brings with it myriad distractions off and on the field. Will the more excitable Welshmen be diverted? It is not the only question confronting them tonight. Can they find a way of playing the unpredictable rugby that defined their celebrated teams of yesteryear, or will we be "treated" to more of the round-the-corner, lateral stuff that leaves us so dissatisfied?

How will the reconstructed front row stack up? If Wales have problems compensating for the loss of Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones, I can see England keeping the ball on the field and ensuring that scrums, not line-outs, are the main focus of the set-piece argument. Finally, will James Hook have any serious influence on proceedings now he has been taken out of the midfield, where so many important decisions are made, and repositioned at full-back?

As England have also lost important forwards to injury, their mobility and athleticism have taken a knock, and it will be instructive to see how this changes the contest. I suspect that given the nature of their defeat by an exceptionally aggressive South Africa last time out, they are determined to be more physical in this game – not that I expect the Welsh pack to be as formidable as the second-string Springbok unit proved at Twickenham in November.

England must now be looking not only to win the physical contest with Wales at close quarters, but to show increased maturity at half-back. There were times against the South Africans when key decision-makers seemed to be turning to the next page in the "playbook" in search of solutions, only to find the script offered no answers. The physicality tonight may not be as extreme, but the hostility generated by the crowd will create the circumstances in which Ben Youngs and Toby Flood must show they can operate with what I call appropriate positivity.

Scotland, meanwhile, travel to Paris, where they will encounter a French side still reeling from the effects of their extraordinary implosion against the Wallabies a little over two months ago. Having appeared to have shrugged off the restrictive practices imposed on them under Bernard Laporte, what happened in the meeting with Australia left many people scratching their heads. Their teamsheet suggests they are capable of playing some sublime rugby, but it is by no means clear whether they will take on the Scots with all guns blazing, or with water pistols squirting.

The Scots will go in with a big, hungry pack equipped for a face-to-face scrap and they'll be keen to extend their recent run of impressive results. They will need to combine their traditional helter-skelter approach with a strong element of control, continue to develop their forward game both at the set piece and away from it, and then hope their midfield trio can bring some intelligent creativity to the mix.

As for the Irish, they go to Italy without a recognised international front row and have lost two of Europe's better loose forwards, Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip, into the bargain. It is too early for the Azzurri to derive full value from the presence of two teams in the Magners League, but they are rarely pushovers in Rome, where Ireland have blown hot and cold.

Three contrasting contests, each affected by injury and therefore difficult to call. If you press me, I'll go for England, France and Ireland. I could, however, be wrong on all three counts.

Cardboard army proved no match for battle-ready England

I vividly remember England's first visit to the Millennium Stadium, in 2001. I was part of the coaching team under Clive Woodward and we went to the venue on the eve of the game to inspect the facilities and have a brief run-out on the pitch. On our way to the dressing rooms, we came across a series of life-size cardboard cut-outs of the Welsh players placed at intervals along the corridor. Quite why they were there I have no idea, but if they were intended as intimidation, the plan backfired spectacularly.

We used it as a motivating tool and while the noise at kick-off time was so loud that it was impossible to hear anyone standing more than 10 metres away, the towering cauldron of Welsh tribalism served to inspire what was a tough, battle-hardened England team. We ran in five tries, despite winning only 40 per cent possession. A portent for this evening, perhaps?

In association with Sharp's Doom Bar. To tackle your own rugby issues, and win Doom Bar goodies, join the debate at independent.co.uk/rugby

Win an exclusive Doom Bar t-shirt!

Do you think you know your rugby? Do you want to make your voice heard? Do you want to win a sharp Sharp's t-shirt?

Tell us what you think about the state of the game in the comments below, and you could be in with a shot at winning a particularly snazzy Doom Bar t-shirt. Over the next month, Online sports editor Simon Rice will be watching the comments under Brian Ashton's Saturday columns like a hawk, looking out for the most interesting, thoughtful and provocative comments from readers. Is Brian on the money, or is he talking nonsense? What's wrong with the England team, who's going to win the Premier League, and are New Zealand really unbeatable?

Then, in February, after a month's heated debate, Simon will pick his favourite comment to win that coveted shirt. What are you waiting for? Put the rugby world to rights.

Entrants must be aged 18 or over. Terms and conditions apply.

If you have any problems posting your comments, you can also email your entry to onlinecompetitions@independent.co.uk

Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
fashion
News
news... you won't believe how bad their skills were
News
people

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright and Mark Wright
tvStrictly goes head-to-head with Apprentice
Sport
footballPremier League preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's clashes
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas